Serenity Now: Religious Buildings and Sacred Spaces in Los Angeles

LA has welcomed a myriad of religions for centuries

Golden Lotus Temple and swans at the Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine
The Golden Lotus Temple at the Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine  |  Photo:  Yuri Hasegawa

Los Angeles is truly a global metropolis, with a mosaic of cultures from around the world spanning its neighborhoods. For centuries, the city has welcomed a myriad of religions - some of LA's most historic and important buildings are houses of worship. Read on for landmark religious buildings and sacred spaces in Los Angeles.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
Interior of Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels | Photo: Bobby Gibbons, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

The majestic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (555 W. Temple St., Los Angeles 90012) rises 11 stories above Temple Street, a short walk from Grand Park and the Music Center. Designed by Pritzker Prize winner Rafael Moneo, the state-of-the-art building is renowned for its Modernist look. The cathedral opened to the public in 2002, the first Roman Catholic Church to be built in the western United States in 30 years. Famed sculptor Robert Graham created the cathedral's massive bronze doors and the 8-foot statue, Our Lady of the Angels, which stands above them. Natural light floods the cathedral interior, thanks to 33,500 square feet of alabaster windows, the largest single use in the world. The Mausoleum features Baroque Revival-style stained glass windows, while the Meditation Garden offers a serene place to rest. COLA is a favorite gathering place for the Latino community of Los Angeles, and is also the official chair of L.A.’s Mexican-born Archbishop, José Horacio Gómez.

La Placita Church in Downtown LA
La Placita Church | Photo: Ken Lund, Flickr

La Placita Church

The parish church in the Plaza Historic District of Downtown LA, La Placita Church (535 N Main St, Los Angeles 90012) was founded as La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles ("The Church of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels") on Aug. 18, 1814. The structure was completed and dedicated on Dec. 8, 1822. A replacement chapel, named La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (“The Church of Our Lady of the Angels") was rebuilt in 1861 using materials from the original church. La Placita Church was one of the first three sites designated as Historic-Cultural Monuments by the City of Los Angeles, and is also designated as a California Historical Landmark.

Monthly Goma Service at Los Angeles Koyasan Buddhist Temple
Monthly Goma Service | Photo: Los Angeles Koyasan Buddhist Temple, Facebook

Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin

Founded in 1912, Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin - aka Koyasan Buddhist Temple (342 E. 1st St, Los Angeles 90012) is one of the oldest existing Buddhist temples in the North American mainland. The temple is a branch of the Koyasan Shingon Buddhism and is the North American regional headquarters. Japanese art and religious objects, such as Buddha statues and stone lanterns, are displayed in the entryway. The altar inside the temple contains decorative objects of Buddhist symbols such as twin mandalas, scrolls and banners. Open daily to visitors, the temple hosts a wide range of weekly and monthly services, activities and cultural festivals. The temple is also home to Boy Scout Troop 379, which was formed in 1931 and is one of the oldest troops in California. Star Trek icon and gay rights activist George Takei was one of the troop's members.

In 1912, the temple established its first location in a storefront near Elysian Park. The temple was moved in 1920 to a larger building on Central Avenue. To commemorate the move, a tree was planted by temple members in front of the new building. Today it's known as the Aoyama Tree, a Little Tokyo landmark - the Japanese American National Museum stands at the temple's second location. The temple's third and current building was built on East 1st Street in 1940. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor a year later, the new temple was closed while its members were forcibly relocated to internment camps. During World War II, the temple was mostly used for storage space for internees. When it reopened in 1946, the temple had to rebuild its congregational base after families and residents of Little Tokyo were scattered outside Los Angeles.

Thien Hau Temple in Chinatown
Thien Hau Temple | Photo: Chris Valle Photography, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

Thien Hau Temple

Located in historic Chinatown, Thien Hau Temple (756 Yale St, Los Angeles 90012) is a Taoist temple dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of the sea and the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, and those whose cultures are associated with the ocean. Shrines at the temple venerate Mazu, Guan Yu (god of war) and Fu De (god of the earth). The temple building was originally a Christian church that was purchased in the 1980s and transformed into a small Taoist temple. Following two years of construction, a larger temple was completed next door in September 2005. The temple was officially dedicated on March 25, 2006.

The temple is especially festive before and after the Lunar New Year. About a month before the new year begins, people go the temple to give thanks for the past year by burning incense and offering items such as roast pig, fruit and flowers. On Lunar New Year’s Eve, crowds gather to receive blessings, burn incense and worship the deities. Lion dancers perform and firecrackers are popped to scare away evil spirits. Blessings are given at the temple during the first few weeks of the new year.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple exterior
Wilshire Boulevard Temple | Photo: Bruce Boehner, Wikimedia Commons

Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Known from 1862 to 1933 as Congregation B'nai B'rith, Wilshire Boulevard Temple (3663 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles 90010) is the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles. The current Wilshire Boulevard Temple opened in 1929, joining other significant places of worship in the Wilshire Center district. The temple's Sanctuary building was designed by architect Abram M. Edelman, the son of the congregation's first rabbi, Abraham Edelman. Over the years, the temple has welcomed everyone from the Dalai Lama to the LA Phil. The Moorish-style building was designated a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in March 1973 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in December 1981.

Modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, the massive Byzantine revival dome is 100 feet in diameter, with its top at 135 feet above the street. The Warner Memorial Murals were painted by Hugo Ballin, who also painted murals at the Griffith Observatory, LAC-USC Medical Center, and the former Los Angeles Times building. Commissioned by the Warner brothers, the founders of their namesake movie studio, the murals depict key moments in Jewish history and measure 320 feet long and 7 feet high. Considered among the finest examples of stained glass in the country, the triple lancet windows on the east and west walls were funded by MGM co-founder, Louis B. Mayer. Tours of the historic Sanctuary are available by appointment only. Contact the tours department at 213.835.2195.

First AME Church choir
Photo: First AME Church of Los Angeles, Facebook

First AME Church of Los Angeles

Founded in 1872, First African Methodist Episcopal Church (2270 S. Harvard Blvd., Los Angeles 90018) is the oldest church in Los Angeles founded by African Americans. The church was established under the sponsorship of Biddy Mason - an African American nurse, real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist - and her son-in-law, Charles Owens. The organizing meetings were held in Mason's home on Spring Street, and she donated the land on which the first church was built. First AME has grown to a congregation of more than 19,000 members and several dozen ministries within 13 corporations. The current church is located in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of the historic West Adams district. It was designed by renowned African American architect, Paul R. Williams in 1968.

Walking the stone labyrinth at Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens
Walking the stone labyrinth | Photo: Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens, Facebook

Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens

Located in the historic West Adams District, the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens (3500 W Adams Blvd, Los Angeles 90018) is a nonprofit spiritual center that opened in 2002. PALG is the headquarters and learning center of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), a non-denominational, ecumenical church. Visitors are invited to "unwind the mind" by walking the stone labyrinth, modeled after the famous Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in France. The Asian-themed meditation garden features 16 water fountains, a koi pond, and several intimate seating areas for reflection and meditation.

Docents are available to give tours of the historic Guasti Villa, built in 1910-14 by Secundo Guasti, an Italian immigrant whose namesake Southern California winery was at one time the largest in the world. The grand villa was designed by the architectural firm of Hudson & Munsell (Frank Dale Hudson and William A.O. Munsell), renowned for landmark buildings such as the original 1913 Building of the Natural History Museum, and Fire Station No. 23 (featured in the original Ghostbusters). The mansion was declared a Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument in 1990.

Convento Building at Mission San Fernando Rey de España
Convento Building at Mission San Fernando Rey de España | Photo: Mike Quach, Wikimedia Commons

Mission San Fernando Rey de España

Founded on Sept. 8, 1797, Mission San Fernando Rey de España (15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills 91345) was the seventeenth of the twenty-one Spanish missions established in Alta California, the region that included the modern states of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Named for Saint Ferdinand and located in the community of Mission Hills, the mission is the namesake of the San Fernando Valley and the nearby city of San Fernando. The mission was secularized in 1834 and returned to the Catholic Church in 1861. It became a working church in 1920. Today the mission grounds function as a museum. The church is a chapel-of-ease (a church building other than the parish church) of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Known for its iconic arched portico or colonnade, the Convento Building was built between 1808 and 1822 and is the mission's only remaining original building. It was the largest adobe building in California and the largest original building at any of the California missions. The Convento Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

The San Fernando Mission Cemetery is the final resting place of notable figures such as entertainer Bob Hope and his wife Dolores, singer Ritchie Valens, and actor William Frawley.

Walking meditation at Hsi Lai Temple
Walking meditation | Photo: Hsi Lai Temple, Facebook

Hsi Lai Temple

One of the largest Buddhist temples in the Western Hemisphere, Hsi Lai Temple (3456 S. Glenmark Dr., Hacienda Heights 91745) is a mountain monastery located on a 15-acre site in Hacienda Heights. Spanning more than 102,000 square feet, the temple was completed in 1988 after a ten-year planning and construction process. The temple's architecture, gardens and statuary are modeled after ancient Chinese monasteries from the Ming and Ching dynasties.

Meaning "coming to the West," Hsi Lai is affiliated with Fo Guang Shan, a Buddhist organization from Taiwan. The temple serves as a spiritual and cultural center for those interested in learning more about Buddhism and Chinese culture. A wide range of classes and retreats that promote Humanistic Buddhism are offered at Hsi Lai, including an extended retreat program for those who want to experience monastic life for a longer period of time. There are also recurring monthly services and annual ceremonies. A vegetarian lunch is served daily to visitors from 11:30am to 1:30pm.

Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine
Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine

The Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine (17190 Sunset Blvd, Pacific Palisades 90272) is tucked away on a lush, ten-acre site in the Pacific Palisades a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean. Founded by Paramahansa Yogananda in 1950, the Lake Shrine offers a lakeside meditation garden with shrines and waterfalls, a hilltop temple with weekly services and meditations, a retreat for silent renewal, and an ashram for Self-Realization Fellowship monks. The Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial is a "wall-less temple" that features a thousand-year-old stone sarcophagus from China, which holds a portion of Gandhi's ashes in a brass and silver coffer.

Less well-known than the Lake Shrine, the Self-Realization Fellowship International Headquarters (3880 San Rafael Ave, Los Angeles 90065) is located northeast of Downtown LA at the top of Mount Washington. Originally opened in 1909 as the Mount Washington Hotel, the "Mother Center" is the administrative center of the SRF headquarters. The public is invited to wander the grounds, which include gardens, meditation areas and babbling brooks.

Wayfarers Chapel interior during the day
Photo: Wayfarers Chapel

Wayfarers Chapel

The exquisite Wayfarers Chapel - aka “The Glass Church” (5755 Palos Verdes Dr., Rancho Palos Verdes 90275) is situated on cliffs above the Pacific Ocean. Architect Lloyd Wright, son of the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, conceived of Wayfarers Chapel as a “tree chapel” - a natural sanctuary set in the middle of a forest. Lloyd Wright’s design is regarded as one of the foremost examples of Organic Architecture, which promotes harmony between human habitation and the natural world. A popular wedding venue because of its spectacular design and location, the Wayfarers Chapel was featured prominently on The O.C. and appeared in other TV series like 90210. Wayfarers Chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in July 2005.